Robert A. Blanchette, born 30 July 1951, lived in Concord, MA, for most of his early years. He received his B.A. degree from Merrimack College in 1973; his M.S. degree in forest resources from the University of New Hampshire in 1975, where he worked with Alex Shigo; and his Ph.D. degree in plant pathology from Washington State University in 1978, under the direction of C. Gardner Shaw. After a brief period as postdoctoral research and teaching associate at Washington State University, he joined the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Minnesota in 1980 as assistant professor and forest pathologist. He was promoted to associate professor in 1984 and to professor in 1988.
Dr. Blanchette has made many notable contributions to plant pathology, forest mycology, and forest products pathology. Among these is his work on identifying the mechanisms of wood decay in living trees and wood products, research on the biology and ecology of forest pathogens, and pioneering efforts to utilize forest fungi for industrial uses. His research on wood decay has elucidated decay processes by fungi with a focus on how some pathogenic white rot fungi attack trees and other saprophytic species decompose woody substrates. Ultrastructural immunocytochemical and biochemical investigations have revealed the progressive stages of lignin degradation in wood and other lignocellulosic substrates. His paper in the Annual Review of Phytopathology in 1991 summarized his research on delignification by fungi and gave insight into how these fungi could be used for industrial bioprocessing purposes. The use of white rot fungi for biological pulping has shown that pretreatment of wood with selected fungi can reduce environmental pollution, lower energy usage for mechanical pulping, and improve paper strength properties. In 1997, Dr. Blanchette shared a group award for Research in Environmental Science with scientists from the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory, Madison, WI, for their significant accomplishments in developing biopulping technology. Another accomplishment of his research currently being used in industry is the use of fungi to remove resinous extractives from wood before paper production. Dr. Blanchette has 13 U.S. patents and numerous foreign patents for using fungi and bacteria in various bioprocessing applications for the forest products industry.
Dr. Blanchette’s expertise on wood decay has been sought nationally and internationally by museum scientists, archaeologists, and students of antiquity to help investigate decay of archaeological wood and determine appropriate conservation methods. He has worked on ancient wooden objects from Egypt and ancient furniture from Tumulus MM in Gordion, Turkey; the 3,000-year-old Uluburun shipwreck; wood deterioration in Anasazi Pueblos at Chaco Canyon National Historic Park in New Mexico; and many other historic sites and ancient treasures. He currently is working on a project in Antarctica to identify active deterioration and help preserve several historic huts built by Captain Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton during the Antarctic exploration. Dr. Blanchette has also done intriguing investigations on fungi used by the indigenous people of North America. He discovered collections of forest fungi in natural history museums that have provided important new information on how fungi were used in early Native American culture. He identified carved sporophores of Fomitopsis officinalis used by Pacific Northwest Coast shaman in rituals to cure the sick. He also found that the aromatic fungus Haploporus odorus was the sacred fungus used by the northern plains Indians to cure illness and symbolize spiritual power.
His work on discoloration and decay in trees has led to projects in southeast Asia, where he is working to preserve an endangered tropical rainforest tree species. This tree produces a valuable resin that has been harvested from old growth trees for centuries for cultural uses by Buddhists and Moslems. He found that the resin is produced as a host response to wounding and microbial invasion and could be induced in young trees. Dr. Blanchette, with colleagues from The Rainforest Project Foundation and from Vietnam, established plantations and technology to produce sustainable yields of resin. Another international project that Dr. Blanchette has been involved with is the biological control of sapstain, a new method of controlling detrimental stain fungi that is being tested in the field at several sites in the United States and New Zealand. Among his most outstanding accomplishments as a scientist, however, have been the basic studies to unravel nature’s mysteries about how fungi interact with wood in forest ecosystems.
Dr. Blanchette has served as an associate editor of Plant Disease and as a member of the editorial boards for Applied Environmental Microbiology and International Biodeterioration and Biodegradation. He was elected a Fellow of the International Academy of Wood Science in 1989 and received the Hans Merensky Award in 1991 for research in wood science. He has coauthored two books and published over 150 refereed papers or book chapters. Dr. Blanchette is an enthusiastic teacher and has a gift for presenting information in a clear, accurate manner. He has had 8 Ph.D. students and 10 M.S. students during his tenure at the University of Minnesota. His research with graduate students has covered a wide range of forest tree diseases including the pinewood nematode, Armillaria root rot, stem rusts of pine, dwarf mistletoe of black spruce, and several other forest pathogens.